The longer I'm on this planet the more I think we might all be better served if we give up our pursuits for gender equality, revert to exaggeratedly traditional gender roles and call it a day: He hunts (or runs a private equity fund, whatever), she has babies and cooks (oversees the full-time nanny, brings home prepared Whole Foods meals). Of course that would never work any more — including for me. I mean, I could never give up my career and financial independence. And I'm just not prepared to stop peeing standing up.
But ironing out the finer points of feminism seems maddeningly impossible. How, for example, do we close the wage gap when professional women simply prefer to sometimes step off the career track and focus on family? How do we teach our sons and daughters that “no means no” while, in our own personal lives, enjoy the cat-and-mouse pursuit inherent in male-female relationships? How can we relish being cared for when men to pay on dates while we aim to earn at least as much as they? And how can we insist that women's new-found professional/political/financial success is all a boon for everyone, when we now know that it leads to more divorce and lonely women?
Last year I wrote this essay about my internal mud-wrestling match between my inner feminist and my inner femme as it applies to date-paying:
This time last year when a perfectly pleasant round of beers wrapped up with Kevin (or was his name Sean?), it seemed obvious who would pay the bill. It’s the classic little dance: The woman makes a perfunctory offer to pay, knowing full well that the man will get the check. Instead, Sean (or was his name Kevin?) casually suggested we split the tab, and that’s what we did.
And I was pissed! I mean, dude, I’m totally cuter and younger than you are, and unless I misread something, you found me to be smart and charming. So pick up the damn bill, Kevin/Sean/whatever your name was!
But I hesitate to share that thought here. After all, I fall into the ranks of educated, professional urbanite, left-leaning and moderately feminist. In other words, I make my own money and am looking for a guy who digs my mind and wit. So where do I get off expecting chivalry based on the assumption of my economic inferiority and need to be cared for? Despite plenty of logical explanations of why I should buy my own drink, I still couldn’t shake the notion that the guy pays for the first date. So I decided to find out what’s going on in the dating world—and why we pay (or don’t) the way we do.
Experts I interviewed gave all the usual explanations why my instincts were right and guys should cover the tab: custom, an evolutionary need for women to feel cared for (and men to feel powerful) and “women tend to spend more money, time and effort than men in preparing to go on the date,” as one male therapist pointed out.
I accept this typical male-female dynamic and see how it plays out in the men I am attracted to — guys who can make decisions, take the lead and are, well, masculine. I clearly am not alone, as I got an overwhelming and affirmative response to this post on the subject:
That’s the thing with the Lou’s of the world, Sarah and I agreed. We love that they take over plans for the evening, and then take over our bodies for the night. When you are an independent woman with lots of responsibilities, many men assume that we want to carry out that strong role all the time. But I need to feel like a woman, and the times I enjoy that most are when I am with a man. If I am being honest with myself, being a woman means – to a degree – being passive. And that requires a man who is – to a degree – the alpha.
All this gender-typical business is all good in the theater of dating where everyone plays a role — including clearly defined gender roles. But what happens when the curtain comes down and the audience goes home? What happens when my professional alpha forges ahead? What happens when when a woman earns more than a man?
I'll tell you what: She resents his effeminate ass, he resents being emasculated, and they split. A big New York Times article this summer “Breadwinner Wives, Nervous Husbands” spelled out all the social ills that stem from women earning more than men. Just to remind you: chicks head 40 percent of households with kids, women eclipse dudes in college admissions and are making huge strides in most quantifiable measures when compared with 40 years ago. And then families fall apart if they're ever formed at all, according to various studies cited in the story:
- While women prefer men to be intelligent and ambitious, men have these preferences for women only to the point where women threaten to earn more than they do.
- The divorce rate is 50 percent higher in couples where the wife earns more than the husband.
- The share of young adults in marriages is plummeting, and researchers attribute the rise in female affluence and professional success to 25 percent of that decline.
In summary: Women want macho men to make us feel cared for while they chase us around. But then we want to take care of ourselves – and our kids, and the guy, too, if it works out that way. We want it both ways, but clearly that’s not working out so hot.
This confluence of trends means that something has to give, and that is our definition of success. It is easy to applaud feminism’s fantastic strides when we look at quantifiable measures of education, money and professional status. But all this comes at a price to our relationships, which decline in their success for every step we take towards professional success.
It is time to take a step back and start talking about what is really going on here. We can't change biology. We can't change our desire for alpha men. And we can't change men's desire to dominate. We also can't change our need to couple up and benefit from long-term relationships and marriage. No way are women going to consciously give up the strides we've made, but we must start having conversations about the downsides of the upsides of feminism.
I often say that this is but a moment in the history of feminism. Ours is a fascinating time in which we are charged with sorting out all these finer but critical issues in creating true equality. Each every one of us makes in how we manage our careers, families and relationships is a tiny but important match sticks in the giant railroad of feminism. How you conduct yourself in your personal life affects me in mine — and our daughters and sons moving forward. So how do you propose we reconcile all these seemingly competing forces? I toss the conversation to you:
- Do you feel you hold yourself back professionally for the sake of your husband’s masculinity – and therefor the success of your marriage?
- If you are single, do you find yourself downplaying your success to potential mates?
- Are you in a relationship in which you earn more than your male partner? Do you resent that? Does he? Be honest. For real – do you find him just as sexy as you do men who are more professionally successful than you?
- How do we sort out this mess?
Please chime in!
Emma Johnson is a veteran money journalist, noted blogger, bestselling author and an host of the award-winning podcast, Like a Mother with Emma Johnson. A former Associated Press Financial Wire reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Glamour, Oprah.com, U.S. News, Parenting, USA Today and others. Her #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), was named to the New York Post's ‘Must Read” list.
Emma regularly comments on issues of modern families, gender equality, divorce, sex and motherhood for outlets like CNN, Headline News, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox & Friends, CNBC, NPR, TIME, MONEY, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Doctors. She was named Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web,” “Top 15 Personal Finance Podcasts” by U.S. News, and a “Most Eligible New Yorker” by New York Observer.
A popular speaker, Emma presented at the United Nations Summit for Gender Equality. Read more about Emma here.